For an international parent, navigating the Dutch education system is daunting, particularly if your child has special educational needs. Here is our guide to getting the information and support you need in the Netherlands.
Wherever possible, children with special needs in the Netherlands are encouraged to attend mainstream primary schools. The Passend Onderwijs (2014) stipulates that schools are obligated to investigate first whether they can provide additional support for children with special needs. If the child’s needs fall beyond the resources available to the school, a child might be referred to a dedicated special needs school.
When searching for a school, it is important to realise that schools vary widely in their experience with special education support as well as their ability to provide it. It is always important to discuss your child’s needs with any schools you are considering.
If you are arriving in the Netherlands with a child with special needs, you need to note this with the municipality (gemeente) during the registration process so that appropriate steps can be taken find support for your child. If your child was born in the Netherlands, their special needs care will be lead by the GGD and/or their school.
Types of Schools
There are two types of dedicated special needs schools in the Netherlands: speciaal basisonderwijs (SBO) and speciaal onderwijs schools.
At SBO schools, the pupils follow the same program and have the same key objectives as regular primary schools but the class sizes are smaller and the children get more attention and support, if needed. They also get more time to complete primary school (until age 14, normally it’s age 12). This type of education is especially meant for children who have learning difficulties, low IQ scores, and behavioural problems.
Speciaal onderwijs schools focus on a type or group of special need support and are known as cluster schools. The class sizes are smaller than at regular schools and the students get more tailor-made support. Cluster schools often work together in order to provide the most suitable support.
Cluster 1 schools are for children who are visually impaired or blind.
Cluster 2 schools are for children who have hearing or speech impairments.
Cluster 3 schools are for children who have cognitive or physical disabilities, or a chronic illness that makes going to school difficult.
Cluster 4 schools are for children with serious behavioural and/or social differences (Autism, ADHD, PDD-NOS, ODD, CD, etc.).
In order for your child to be accepted to one of such schools, s/he will need an indication first. They will have to get several evaluations and tests, and you will be interviewed as their parent, etc. It can be a very lengthy process. An onderwijsconsulent can assist the family in this process. If the child makes enough progress at a special needs school, s/he can transfer to a mainstream school after a couple of years. After a special needs primary school, a child can go to either a regular secondary school (with extra support, if needed), or to a special needs school at secondary level. A special needs school at secondary level will make an educational plan with the child and guide them towards a suitable job.
The language of instruction at special education schools is Dutch.
Visio Education has seven schools that provide special education and secondary special education for pupils with visual impairments, as well as children with multiple (visual and mental) disabilities. They also guide pupils with visual disabilities in the regular education system. They moreover provide information and advice as well as different services related to research, counselling, rehabilitation, education, and living.
Lighthouse Special Education is an international primary school in The Hague, part of the HSV (Haagsche Schoolvereeniging), which offers English instruction for children with special needs. Children between 3 and 5 years attend it’s International Pre-School Group, “Three Little Ships” (Early Intervention Program).
You will find Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers at international schools (both private and partially-funded schools) where the language of instruction will be (mostly) English, but you might be required to fund the assistant. Many international schools in the Netherlands provide specific support programmes for their students, so it is worth contacting schools directly for more information.
Options for Gifted Children
Some regular schools have a dedicated department for gifted children, which provide extra cognitive challenges and subjects, such as Leonardo Schools for Gifted Children. Many schools also have a plusklas which offers gifted children some extra challenges for a few hours per week. The Day a Week School in Amsterdam offers a program for gifted children from various schools to work one day per week on special projects.
Support Groups in the Netherlands
Support groups are available at a local and at a national level for international parents
Support for international parents who have a child with ADD/ADHD or think that their child may have ADD/ADHD or just want to find out more information. Based in The Hague.
Public organisations that aim to support children, youngsters, and adults who are hard of hearing, deaf, deaf-and-blind, and those who are developmentally delayed in the field of speech and language, as well as those who are autistic or mentally disabled and have difficulties with speech or language. Anyone confronted with barriers to communication is entitled to support from Kentalis and Auris in the form of diagnostics, care, and education.
Auris is usually located in places where there is no Kentalis, and the other way around.
Autismecafé is an initiative for parents and family members of children with autistic disorders. In a relaxed atmosphere, you can meet others, receive information, ask questions and obtain assistance in finding help. At the moment Autismecafé organises parents evenings in Alphen aan den Rijn, Leiden, and The Hague.
Netherlands-wide support organisation for parents of children with conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc.
A friendly, internationally represented group for parents with dyslexic children. The group meets monthly during term time either for an informal coffee morning or a chance to listen to a guest speaker with a specialist interest in dyslexia. A great way to meet other parents and to find out what services are available in your local area.
The expat special educational needs group in the Netherlands. They organise support groups for parents/carers of children with autism, ADHD, or dyslexia.
Support for children who have dyslexia.
Offers advice and support in English.
The Facebook page for the Autism Association for Overseas Families is dedicated to parents and professionals working together for children with autism.